The great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev, Solaris) died of cancer shortly after finishing 1986’s The Sacrifice, and like Robert Altman’s Prairie Home Companion or Warren Zevon’s album The Wind, it’s fully animated by the knowledge that death is just around the corner. Though the coda adopts a tone of gentle resignation, Tarkovsky isn’t going quietly into that good night: Following a half-mad philosopher on the precipice of nuclear oblivion, he sounds off about humanity’s moral and spiritual failures in an age where science provides either numbing comfort or mass destruction. For the director, the film acts as a vast repository for long-running themes and ideas, made possible by a premise that strands an isolated few on a remote island, while World War III—and the likely annihilation of the planet—slowly encroaches on them. It’s a difficult film, even by Tarkovsky’s standards, because some of those ideas lack clarity, and the distracting hysterics in key moments fail to bring them across.
Shot with a Swedish cast and crew, The Sacrifice feels as much like an Ingmar Bergman film as it does a Tarkovsky film. It employs two Bergman regulars, actor Erland Josephson (Cries And Whispers) and cinematographer Sven Nykvist, in the most important roles. Josephson stars as the witheringly intellectual patriarch of a wealthy family gathered for his birthday celebration on their isolated Baltic island estate. The mood is somber enough before catastrophe strikes: It’s suggested that his much younger wife (British actress Susan Fleetwood, in a brutal Method turn) is in love with a handsome doctor (Sven Wollter), and the only sympathetic ear he seems to have in the house is that of his very young son. When news of World War III filters through on the airwaves, and a disturbance rattles the home like an earthquake, Josephson strikes a Faustian bargain poised somewhere between faith and insanity.
The Sacrifice’s one unambiguous triumph is Nykvist’s photography, which adopts a gorgeous blue-gray palette that darkens within the suffocating interiors. The opening shot alone—an almost imperceptible tracking shot that accompanies Josephson telling the story of a barren tree nursed to life—has a stark, crystalline beauty that the rest of the film often struggles to achieve. Though bookended by extraordinarily powerful scenes that play off a potent religious metaphor, the middle section sinks into a morass of ill-defined relationships and uneven performances, which may be blamed in part on culture clash. The Sacrifice works better in hushed, private moments, when Josephson is left to ponder the world he and the people around him are due to depart. No doubt Tarkovsky was as well.
Key features: Two years after The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s co-editor Michal Leszczylowski released Directed By Andrei Tarkovsky, an affectionate 99-minute documentary packed with footage of the filmmaker at work. That film is included on the second disc, along with trailers and photo galleries.